Posted by: strugglesome | May 11, 2011

Death, Be Not Proud: Center City Theatre Works Presents The Shadow Box

Death is both an extremely common and extremely uncommon subject for a play. The trick is, who dies, and how they die. You want to kill yourself in a blaze of glory, or go our guns blazing, now, that’s good theater. You want to die gently, gracefully, grotesquely, and over a long period of time, well, that’s an Oscar winning movie, not a piece of theater. Or at least, it’s not usually a piece of theater. But there has been a rash (pun intended) of plays in the last 40 years exploring the drama of death, and not particularly dramatic deaths at that, the slow long painful decay, not the brief candle. And few of these plays are as iconic and produced by college theater programs as The Shadow Box, Michael Cristofer’s 1977 work chronicling three people dying of terminal illnesses and the friends and family around them struggling to watch them do so. And so it’s rather ironic that Center City Theatre Works would choose this work as their inaugural production, that is, saying hello with a play about saying goodbye. But I suppose every greeting contains a farewell, and visa versa, right? Surely there’s some folk saying to that effect.

Staged in the Adrienne Theater’s fourth floor space and directed by Center City Theatre Works’ artistic director and founder Jeffrey Lesser, the piece is told half as a series of interviews and half as scenes from the lives of terminally ill patients. When hospitalization is deemed no longer useful or effective for these three people, Joe (James Lepone), Brian (Marc Forget) and Felicity (Mindi Ginsberg) are all put out to pasture, spending the end of their days in cottages in California. This sounds like my version of hell, but, hey, everyone is different, and the assumption is that this is actually a nice thing to do for these patients who medicine can no longer aid. And so they live out their lives in the company of their families and loved ones, who may or may not be able to actually comprehend how they can live and die at the same time.  Joe’s family, for example, wife Maggie (Melissa Connell) and son Steve (Isaiah Ellis) live in complete denial, or, in Steve’s case, ignorance of his father’s imminent passing. Brian’s ex-wife Beverly (Kirsten Quinn) and current boyfriend Mark (John Schultz) can’t stop fighting long enough to actually concentrate on the dying person in the room, and Felicity’s daughter Agnes (Hilary Kayle Crist) has been patiently waiting for her mother to expire, only to learn that she may be the only thing keeping her alive.

To say this play has a plot would be, perhaps, an overstatement. The truth is, the piece is more like a rumination or a landscape, offering us scenes from a handful of lives as they end, or try to come to terms with ending. S. Cory Palmer’s set design tries to capture this prism like quality, the shards of different stories relating but never intersecting, but his set often feels cramped and over crowded. A pared down set with minimal dressing would have been far more effective and allowed the actors space to breathe, but as it stands now they almost seem overwhelmed by their surroundings. Jessica Wallace’s gentle but well used lighting design, however, works to combat this, and though it has a few sputters, generally get the job done.

As for the cast, they are all moving and empathetic, creating a truly solid ensemble and trying to eradicate the sinking feeling the audience has that this piece, while revolutionary in it’s first production, is no longer the groundbreaking and moving work it once was. Lesser’s clean direction and his cast’s genuine commitment to this material help, and standouts in the cast like Quinn’s sagely slutty Beverly, Forget’s beautifully pedantic Brian, Ginsberg’s painfully accurate Felicity and Connell’s almost frustratingly realistic Maggie, lead each story through it’s quiet peaks and valleys. The trouble is that the abstractions the text has incorporated to make it more universal are the very things that make it too general. Death, like life, is a reality, it’s cliche, in fact, it’s commonplace.  So when we talk about death in general terms we reduce it to it’s most every day connotations, rather then examining the fact that while death may be inevitable, it is also terrifying, earth shattering, and, sometimes, a relief. Sometimes it’s all of those at once.

That being said, it’s worth seeing this important piece of theater , even if it feels more like it belongs in the past rather then present tense. And it’s always worth seeing a new company bring their work to the Philadelphia community. So if you want to check out Center City Theatre Work’s production of The Shadow Box, you can pick up tickets here.


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